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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Why higher education is sinking

An insistence on uniformity and a mechanical imposition of rules are weakening the university system

Written by Bhaskar Dutta |
May 27, 2013 4:04:39 am

An insistence on uniformity and a mechanical imposition of rules are weakening the university system

The Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) ranking of universities across the world was released on May 9. QS is a well-known educational and career advice company,and prior to 2010,produced these rankings along with the Times Higher Education. The QS ranking combines several indicators such as academic reputation,reputation of undergraduate students amongst employers,citation index of faculty,faculty-student ratio,etc. The latest ranking confirms that Indian universities are not evenly remotely close to the leading universities in the world. Some of the IITs figure amongst the top 50 in a few

of the engineering disciplines. However,no Indian university figures among the top 200 in most subjects. What is perhaps more distressing is that we are left far behind even among Asian countries — an increasing number of universities in China,South Korea and Japan figure among the top 100 universities. Even tiny Singapore has the National University of Singapore — a world-class university in every sense of the word.

It is tempting to dismiss the QS ranking as flawed and unimportant. But burying one’s head in the sand can,at best,be a temporary palliative. Virtually everyone in Indian academia knows that increasingly large numbers of Indian students join foreign universities. Earlier,this flow used to be restricted to students going abroad for their PhDs. Now,even undergraduate students queue up at airline counters to go to greener pastures abroad. So,there is very little doubt that the QS ranking is a reflection of a deep-rooted malaise. The social cost of all this would have been much smaller if there was a significant flow of Indians returning to pursue careers in India. Unfortunately,the inflow is a tiny fraction of the outflow.

There is no single reason explaining the sorry state of higher education in India. The lack of adequate resources,bureaucratic interference by government babus and their political masters,and — perhaps most unfortunately — the tendency of some vice chancellors to treat universities as their personal fiefdoms,have all played their role in precipitating this decline.

Despite the increase in university salaries thanks to the last Pay Commission award,the salary gap between what a young assistant professor can get in India and,in say,Singapore or Hong Kong,is huge — I have deliberately left university salaries in the West out of the comparison. And it is not just the difference in salaries that can act as a deterrent in inducing Indians who have options abroad to return to Indian universities. Despite the world becoming smaller thanks to email and Skype,it is vitally important for researchers to travel abroad to attend conferences and workshops. There is no substitute for face-to-face interactions. Unfortunately,these opportunities are severely restricted. And I am not even mentioning the problems faced by most scientists,who simply cannot function in the absence of well-equipped laboratories.

The main hurdle in providing young researchers with significantly better salaries and facilities is that government resources are spread far too thin. All universities have the same salary structure,all faculty are confronted with the same set of rules governing travel abroad,and so on. “Uniformity” has been the overriding rule. I suspect I am going to win very few friends by advocating an “elitist” principle,in which some universities are singled out and offered resources several times higher than their current allocation. The usual objection to such schemes is that it would create an unequal system. Notice,however,that this does not necessarily violate the ethically compelling principle of “equal treatment of equals” — it is just a recognition of the fact that some people are more talented than others. Incidentally,the government has taken a small step in this direction — the IITs and the so-called institutions of national importance do have a slightly higher payscale and most importantly,every faculty member gets an annual research grant of Rs 1 lakh.

The problem of inadequate facilities is aggravated by the imposition of mechanical rules from above,typically from the HRD ministry or the UGC. For instance,the improved salary structure and perks in the institutes of national importance came with a rider — no one can be appointed without a first class,everyone has to wait for a stipulated number of years before promotion to the next rung. Every leading university or research institution that I know of imposes one simple criterion for recruitment — the quality of a candidate’s research,typically evaluated by looking

at the candidate’s list of publications in peer-reviewed journals. The stipulation of a first-class degree is particularly ridiculous,since it is a very noisy signal of future research output,and also because there is so much variation in marking standards across universities.

Must government babus reinvent the wheel? Why are best practices adopted abroad not good enough for Indian institutions? This practice is again based on the principle of uniformity. More problematic is the fact that it betrays a deep mistrust of those in academia. Why can’t faculty in the leading universities decide on their own criteria for recruitment and promotions? More generally,why are faculty members not given significantly greater decision-making powers on all matters related to the functioning of universities? Readers familiar with the recent controversies surrounding Delhi University will recall that this is the main complaint of everyone opposed to the introduction of the four-year plan — not the idea so much as the process by which the vice chancellor is seeking to introduce the change.

A ray of hope for higher education in India is the gradual emergence of private universities in India. I know of two universities,each generously funded by well-known entrepreneurs,which have just started functioning in the National Capital Region. These offer more attractive packages,in addition to generous research funds. Equally importantly,they have the advantage of being largely free of government regulations — they can decide their

own reward structure. It is still too early to predict what impact they will have on higher education. Hopefully,their success will induce larger numbers of Indian philanthropists to get together to change the face of university education in India.

The writer is professor,Department of Economics,University of Warwick,UK

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